Friday Night Lights may not have been the greatest television show of all time, but it is certainly up there. Despite football scenes, no lack of violence, and a punch or two being thrown in almost every episode, it was still, by and large, a quiet show. It’s characters were strongest in their silences. It was a show about growth, and change, and most fundamentally, about characters. It had its share of traditional tv tropes — it’s starting cast was filled with them, and it played out love triangles and teenage pregnancies just like anything else in primetime — but when it covered small moments, it did them better than any other show on tv. So begins a three-part little treatiste on FNL: with today’s post looking at the inversion of the high school character archetypes.
FNL was a smart show — it used archetypes, and it used them well. What was really fun was seeing which characters fulfilled their archetypes, which expanded beyond them, and which would literally forced out.
1. The Golden Boy
Jason Street was the Hero of the story. He was well-mannered, polite, and handsome. He was a talented football player and a strong leader. He had strong relationships with the main characters — Smash and Riggins were his buddies, Lyla his girlfriend, and he had a great relationship with his coach. He was destined to play for college, and then for the NFL. Instead, he goes in for a tackle, messes it up, and ends up paralyzed. What follows is painful — there’s no great moment when he learns to stand up. He doesn’t walk across the stage at graduation. He fails time and time again. When everything is taken away from him, he’s not the Golden Boy anymore — just a kid with no direction. In a way, it’s a shame that the actor never looked like he belonged in college, let alone high school — on the other hand, seeing an adult man so confused and torn was believable. The other great thing? He’s remembered — at the end of Season 3, Tyra mentions that Street’s accident is what made her wake up — but he isn’t trotted out regularly like a prize pony. Dillon is a school that lives for football, and when Street leaves the world of football, Dillon kind of leaves him. Which means that his story is best closed off by, in turn, leaving Dillon — which he eventually does.
2. The Bad Boy
Oh, Tim Riggins. Tim’s initially our “Bad Boy With the Heart of Gold” and that’s essentially his story for two seasons. We get to see him in the Street/Lyla relationship (zzzz), see him becoming a pseudo-father figure to the next door neighbor, see him sleeping on the couch in a cocaine-ferret dealer’s house (what?) none of which quite works. Once again, the casting seems to be off — we should feel bad for the lost kid who ends up sleeping in his car in front of the Taylors’ house, but it’s a little hard when the kid looks like a 27 year old. But then, season 3, Tim takes off as a character, and that carries through Season 4. This is the time when a normal tv show would take their bad boy and reform him — but Riggins’ doesn’t need reforming. He unapologetically continues to e who he is: a little lazy, not too smart. A kid who cares deeply for his friends and family, but has little to no ambition. That’s been Riggins from day one — he’ll put in the hard work on the field (or clipping copper wire, or working in an auto shop) but he really just wants simple things in life. When he starts putting off college ambitions and then drops out of college and ends up in jail — it’s not because of the “Bad Boy” tropes — it’s because Riggins might have a heart of gold, but he doesn’t have a great work ethic, and he doesn’t have drive.
3. The Girl Next Door
Blech, Lyla Garrity. She’s a little interesting in the beginning — the popular, pretty cheerleader dating the school’s Golden Boy. It’s great seeing her trying to be a good girlfriend to her recently paralyzed boyfriend, making things worse when she’s just trying to make them better. But then there’s a love triangle, and a Christian boy, and. . .okay, FNL failed on this one.
4. The Outsider
Tyra Collete is one of FNL’s greatest triumphs. She starts off the show as Riggins’ sort-of girlfriend. She cuts classes, drinks, smokes. . the list goes on and on. Her mom was a stripper and is an alcoholic, her sister’s a stripper, and it looks like Tyra’s going to be headed the same way. But then, near the end of Season 1, things turn around for Tyra. She becomes friends with Julie, Tami takes her under her wing, and she starts applying herself. The next two seasons are all about Tyra’s hard work (well. . .and there’s the weird little interlude with the rapist. . .we’ll pretend that never happened) and it eventually getting her somewhere. IT’s slow character growth, and there are a few backslides, but that’s how life works. The Tyra we see in Season 5 is a far cry from Season 1, but it’s believably still the same character.
5. The Indescribables.
Julie Taylor and Matt Saracen defy categorization by traditional TV tropes. They’re in a league of their own. They’re both just good kids — good, reliable, salt of the earth kids. And that’s something that’s so often skipped over on tv. Matt Saracen has his drama, certainly — he’s taking care of his grandmother, who has dementia (and is supposedly his legal guardian); his dad is deployed, and ever-absent, and his mom left when he was a baby. On most shows, Matt Saracen would be a devishly handsome, brooding, deeply injured by caring guy. Not here. Here, he’s just a quiet, good kid. He’s a hard-worker. He does everything asked of him, and then does a little more. He falls in love with a nice girl, he’s friends with a couple of dorks, and he gets good grades. THe most stunning Saracen moment? (There’s a few — because when he breaks down it’s beautifully heartwrenching); the penultimate episode of Season 3. It’s been a pretty calm season for Saracen — his mom came back and is helping with Grandma, he’s gotten back together with Julie, and he’s looking into art school in Chicago. His big season long issue has been football — he’s been pushed into the background when a new, hot quarterback shows up. Said hot young quarterback is struggling during the state game, and gets pulled. Saracen gets put in. There’s no drama — none. He changes his pads, goes onto the field, and begins quietly to marshall his troops and even out the score. No fireworks. Because Matt Saracen isn’t about fireworks — he’s been told that it’s his job to go out there and win a game, so he does (well. . .almost).
Julie is the same thing. She’s a sweet girl — goes to church with her parents, takes care of her little sister, falls in love with the quiet artist. But what Julie really is, is a foil — to give Matt something good in his life, and to allow Coach and Tami to be parents. Her issues are never really her issues — she pretty much takes care of herself. But she allows the parents to play a role, to have their own struggles with their daughter growing up. It’s an interesting dynamic.
There are so many more strong characters — Buddy Garrity, who kind of embodies all of Dillon, all of it’s hardcore, blustery, ridiculousness, alongside a good heart. Smash Williams, who brings life and charism to the screen with him — in later seasons there’s Vince Howard, who deserves a post of his own for how amazing he is. There’s Billy Riggins, Grandma Saracen, Luke Cafferty, Landry (Lance?) Clark, and the whole McCoy family. There’s a living, breathing, loving town that demands perfection year after year. But mostly it’s about these people, who are exactly what they’re expected to be, and also somehow more.